06 Feb Spark Conversations: Establishing Essential Curriculum Maps
By Rubicon International, featuring Julie Van Liew, Brownsburg Community School Corporation, IN
Join us as we explore one school’s journey to creating Essential Curriculum maps. Julie Van Liew from Brownsburg Community School Corporation walks us through the process her school went through in creating their Essential Curriculum maps and the powerful lessons learned along the way.
Q: What made you decide to work on building/creating Essential Curriculum maps?
A: Our new superintendent had previously used Rubicon in a former district. He understood the benefit of a common curriculum map for teachers to use in order to provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum.
Q: How did you translate the purpose of developing Essential Curriculum maps to teachers? What was their reaction?
A: The superintendent communicated the purpose during a “Back-to-School” staff meeting. The creation of maps was introduced as a necessary component to the success of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) which were also being initiated in the district. Most subject areas already had maps in place but those maps weren’t always being used with fidelity by the subject area teachers. We also discovered that many teachers had added in their own instructional preferences and so PLC conversations about instruction were meaningless if teachers were not able to discuss the common curriculum. With this premise, teachers understood the need but they were not all pleased with the additional work needed to transfer the current maps to Rubicon. Many saw it as an extra task that would fall by the wayside eventually and so the beginning reaction was one of skepticism.
Q: As you reflect on the process you have established for creating the Essential Curriculum maps, what is one big takeaway you have?
A: A big takeaway from the process would be to start small and have a plan for implementation across the district. Initially we began with mapping in the core content – ELA, Math, Science and Social Studies. Once those were established, we then began the process with other subject areas – World Language, Related Arts, etc. Trying to do too much all at once can be overwhelming and lead to frustrations that prohibit teachers from actually wanting to use the maps once they are established. In conjunction with that you need to have strong leadership support for the process. All leaders – Superintendents, Curriculum Directors, Principals, coaches, teacher leaders – need to hold teachers and each other accountable for using and following the maps with fidelity.
Q: In establishing the Essential maps, what was the most difficult part of the process? How long did it take to sustain the process? Are all levels using the same process for alignment and review?
A: The most difficult part of the process is getting teachers to believe that common maps are an essential piece of the puzzle when discussing student learning, instructional practices and improvement. The PLC would not be nearly as effective if there weren’t maps to guide the weekly conversations. In the beginning, PLC groups could often be heard ending with the question, “Well, what do we want to do next?” To which an administrator sitting in on their conversation would ask, “What does the map say you are doing next?” Now, the map is an integral part of PLC discussions and is used to plan the agenda for upcoming meetings. Teachers can be heard discussing the strategies and resources found in the map. They revise or add assessments based on data discussions in PLC. We didn’t get there overnight though and it took a full two years before the maps became a routine part of a teacher’s instruction and PLC discussions. Alignment and review happen weekly during PLC. As teachers discuss the student achievement data, they can pinpoint areas of their instruction that are working or are in need of revision. However, when the district is preparing for a new textbook adoption, curriculum review is more intentional and used as a guide to purchasing a text that will support our adopted curriculum.
Q: How do you continue to utilize your Essential maps as a Corporation, Building Admins, teachers and SPED/Coaches?
A: As stated previously, essential curriculum maps are utilized weekly by teachers in their PLCs. The maps are used to guide daily instruction. The Essential Maps provide the “what” and teachers provide the “how.” The Essential Maps are utilized by Special Education and English as a Second Language staff when designing instructional strategies and accommodations most beneficial to students. Building Administrators can review maps prior to classroom observations and determine if teachers are following expected curriculum. Speech pathologists review language activities and pull lessons/vocabulary to use with their students that will complement classroom instruction.
Q: Have you received any compliments from Administrators, Teachers or the community for establishing the Essential Curriculum Maps?
A: I think the biggest compliment we have gotten is from teachers transferring into our district from other schools. They remark on their gratefulness for having a map to follow rather than being left to figure out a direction on their own. They appreciate the conversations at PLCs when they can have their questions answered about the Essential Maps
Q: If a District or Corporation was just beginning this process, what advice would you give them?
A: Districts new to the process need to understand that the Essential Maps are a work in progress. They are never a “finished” document. All stakeholders need to know that the map is only as good as the people who use it and reflect on its effectiveness as it relates to student achievement. Those same people are then responsible for revisions when they recognize an area for improvement.
Q: What challenges or surprises did your team encounter, and how did you overcome them?
A: One challenge was the speed with which teams embraced the change and moved forward with making an Essential Map a part of their instructional practice and conversations. Some jumped in with both feet and didn’t look back. Others dragged their feet hoping the pendulum would swing back to another initiative. Administrators from the top kept the focus on Essential Maps and eventually all groups fell into line because they realized the expectation was not going to go away.
Q: What specific advice or recommendation would you give after going through this process?
A: When maps are used across district, meaning several schools utilize the same maps, stakeholders from all schools should be part of the development process. In line with that, no changes should be made to the maps without each school being represented in the decision. Everyone must understand and support the decision that was made for the map, even if their opinion was different. Our staff understands that once something is added or removed from an Essential Map, it is the expectation that they will follow the map as it is written.
Our journey has not been quick or easy. It has taken a dedicated and patient administrative team to guide staff in the implementation of our essential maps. Teachers have been able to see student achievement gains along the way during weekly PLCs through data from formative assessments, benchmark testing and even state-mandated assessments. We regularly celebrate these small, incremental successes and these gains have fueled the momentum to continue the use of the maps as our guide for instruction. In Indiana, our state-mandated assessment is used for accountability purposes and we are proud to say that for the 2016 assessment, Brownsburg Community School Corporation placed #1 in the state for the percentage of students passing both the ELA and Mathematics portions of the assessment. There are several factors that contribute to a #1 ranking – an excellent staff, the PLC process, fidelity to programs – but our guaranteed and viable curriculum is also a large part of that success story. Rubicon has provided us with a means to make that curriculum accessible to all. What we are doing is working for us and we are happy to share our story with others who are interested!